The terrifying story at Valley Ranch

May, 5, 2009
5/05/09
10:45
AM ET
 
  AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
  The Dallas Cowboys' practice field bubble lies on the ground after it collapsed following a storm in Irving, Texas, on Saturday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- As the skies over the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters grew ominous Saturday afternoon, the obvious decision was to hold practice indoors. As is the custom during a rookie minicamp or any other practice, a member of the Cowboys' public relations staff escorted reporters past the outdoor practice fields toward the club's 80,000-square-foot indoor facility, where players and coaches had already gathered.

There was no indication that in less than an hour, many of them would be fearing for their lives. What follows is an attempt to piece together what happened in those chaotic moments after winds of up to 70 mph treated an enormous structure as if it were a toy. In conversations with reporters, video journalists and members of the Cowboys' organization, we've tried to reconstruct some of Saturday's events. Because club employees have been told not to speak to the media, they've been granted anonymity for this story.

Cowboys Facility Collapse
• VIDEO: Footage from collapse
• PHOTOS: The collapse

At about 3:15 p.m. local time Saturday, heavy rains began pounding the fabric-covered indoor facility at Valley Ranch. People who are used to being in the facility during rainstorms immediately recognized a louder roar than usual. A group of reporters and cameramen from four local TV affiliates was in its normal position near the south end zone while players went through team drills. As the rain continued to pelt the facility, Todd Archer of The Dallas Morning News remarked to public relations assistant Jancy Briles, "I wonder what this thing's wind resistance is?"

In a few moments, he would have his answer. The first major sign of trouble was the violent swaying of lights high above the field. At that moment, several people in the building became concerned that one of the lights -- about 3 to 4 feet in diameter -- might drop on a player or coach. Fox 4 cameraman Larry Rodriguez looked up and spotted Cowboys videographer Sam Cromley 40 feet above the field on a hydraulic lift.

"Sam's platform was waving back and forth like a flag," Rodriguez said. "And pretty soon after that, the whole building started to shake. It felt like you were in a ship."

The team's director of videography, Robert Blackwell, ordered Cromley to come down, but it was too late. As the roof and walls began to fold like an accordion, Cromley remained on the platform and basically rode it down to the ground. In some of the video footage captured by local TV affiliates, you can hear Cowboys assistant linebackers coach Dat Nguyen yelling, "Sam, Sam, Sam" as he rushed over to help Cromley escape from underneath the facility's vinyl covering.

Nearby, one offensive lineman could be seen wrapping his arms and legs around one of the few poles that hadn't fallen. He apparently thought a tornado had hit the building, and he was holding on for dear life. For some, the most haunting thing was the initial sound they heard when the building began to implode.

"To me, it sounded like bubble wrap," said Rodriguez, who suffered a laceration on his hand that required nine stitches. "You could just hear everything popping and snapping around you."

Rodriguez made the quick decision to sprint (with his 40-pound camera) toward a 12-foot riser that's normally reserved for team sponsors. He dived underneath the riser and then watched as debris fell all around him. When he saw Nguyen come racing up to help Cromley, he decided to start filming again. He watched as two undrafted rookie guards came running back inside. Travis Bright of BYU and Greg Isdaner of West Virginia used their 325-pound bodies to lift doorframes and other debris while looking to see if anyone was trapped.

"Doors became floors," said Rodriguez. "People were walking around hollering 'Hello? Hello?' And everyone was grabbing any sharp object they could find so they [could] tear the vinyl and try to find people. I was afraid I might step on someone."

 
  AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
  Emergency personnel arrived at the scene to assist those who were injured.

Back near the south end zone, reporters had raced toward the double glass doors that serve as the main entrance. The wind had knocked over a portable toilet that was blocking that exit. Archer was searching for a way out when something fell on him. He could move his feet, but there was debris pinning the rest of his body to the ground. Nick Eatman, a reporter for the team's Web site, recognized the tattoo of a shamrock on Archer's ankle and stopped to help. Eatman was trying to lift the object when he felt a shove from behind.

Former Cincinnati cornerback DeAngelo Smith and Texas Tech defensive end Brandon Williams were able to lift the debris an inch or two, allowing Archer to slide out and escape to safety. When he entered the training room, he heard rookie linebacker Jason Williams lobbying coaches to return to the scene.

Head coach Wade Phillips came jogging into the training room and ordered all the players to sit in front of their lockers so they could get an accurate head count. When he realized that Smith and former TCU safety Stephen Hodge were missing, he ran back toward the fallen building. Phillips found Smith and Hodge digging through debris on the west side of the facility. He put his arms around both players and led them back toward the locker room. And at some point, Phillips demanded head counts for his coaching staff and the media. According to one club employee, "Wade was barking orders like a general." 

And that's the one common theme you keep hearing
from everyone who was inside the practice facility Saturday. The natural instinct for the players, coaches, athletic trainers, scouts and reporters was to look out for others.

Some of the men who appeared to be in the safest spot on the field ended up suffering the most serious injuries. Special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis, scouting assistant Rich Behm, college scouting coordinator Chris Hall and assistant athletic trainer Greg Gaither were among the first people to exit out a door that leads to the outdoor practice fields. But as they were sprinting away from the building, a portion of the east wall they'd just exited fell on them. DeCamillis stood up and walked back to his office in the main building.

 Behm

He was later hauled off on a stretcher with what turned out to be a fractured cervical vertebra in his back. According to eyewitness accounts, Behm had been running a few steps behind DeCamillis when he was struck by scaffolding from the fallen wall. Cowboys officials rushed to his side and did their best to stop the massive bleeding. The club would announce Sunday evening that Behm was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the injury.

Gaither suffered a broken leg and Hall has a serious arm injury. On Monday, some of the 911 calls from Valley Ranch were released. When Dallas Morning News blogger Tim MacMahon escaped the practice facility, he heard linebackers coach Reggie Herring shouting, "Call 911! Call 911!" MacMahon dialed while sprinting away from the building and he calmly said, "The Dallas Cowboys' practice facility collapsed."

"I never looked back as I was sprinting away," MacMahon said. "But when I walked back out there, the damage was so bad that I didn't know if there were dead people."

As MacMahon would later tell a reporter, "It looks like a bear went through a tent."

The stories of heroism in the face of grave danger will continue to emerge, but it sounds as though sixth-round draft choice John Phillips, a tight end from the University of Virginia, played a significant role in the impromptu search-and-rescue mission. Scouts Will McClay and Henry Sroka were buried facedown in a pile of debris on the east side of the building when they heard the crashing of glass. The sound came from Phillips, who was thrashing through debris to get to McClay and Sroka. Phillips helped at least three men to their feet and then raced off to look for more survivors. 

"There were a lot of heroes in that building," said one Cowboys employee. "But you better have [Phillips] pretty high on the list."

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